Washington -- Over the objections of broadcasters, but with
Clinton administration support, a House panel last week rammed through a bill last
Thursday that would restore out-of-town CBS and Fox signals to 700,000 dish owners for six
months while lawmakers attempt to craft a permanent solution.
The House Telecommunications Subcommittee approved the
stopgap bill by unanimous voice vote shortly after agreeing to extend the
signal-restoration period from three months from the date of enactment to six months.
The dish owners lost service Feb. 28, after a federal judge
found that they were illegally receiving Fox and CBS signals provided by satellite
wholesaler PrimeTime 24.
Prior to the vote, National Association of Broadcasters
president Edward Fritts sent a letter to bill sponsor Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), voicing
his industry's "complete and total opposition to H.R. 851" and saying that
it would reward "illegal behavior," among other things.
Meanwhile, Commerce Department secretary William Daley
released a statement the same day saying that the administration supported
"bipartisan efforts" in Congress to resolve the distant-network-signal issue.
Broadcasters argued that the illegal reception of
distant-network signals robs local network affiliates of audience and revenue, ultimately
threatening the distribution foundation of over-the-air television.
The satellite industry responded by saying that the law
relies on an antiquated signal-strength test, and that it denies distant-network service
to people who can't get clear over-the-air pictures on their TVs.
During the six-month moratorium, Tauzin's bill would
require the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a new signal-reception standard and
a predictive model for determining who among home-dish owners may receive distant-network
Under current law, dish owners are supposed to rely on
their local network stations, but the law includes an exception for those who can't
get strong signals.
But the satellite industry insisted that the law is unfair
because dish owners who get strong signals but fuzzy pictures are prohibited under the
Satellite Home Viewer Act from buying distant-network signals.
"It is exactly our intent for the commission to
develop a more modern standard," Tauzin told reporters.
Tauzin's bill will likely come before the full
Commerce Committee this week.
Members of Tauzin's panel were clearly uncomfortable
taking sides between two industries that represent alternatives to cable. And key
lawmakers, such as Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), wanted the two industries to solve the
dispute on their own.
John Orlando, CBS' top Washington, D.C., lobbyist,
said Tauzin's decision to stage a vote on his bill pushed the industries apart.
Orlando added that satellite and broadcast representatives talked last Monday, but they
stopped the next day, once Tauzin decided to move his bill.
While some tried to remain neutral, House Commerce
Committee chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) blamed the satellite industry for creating the mess
and forcing Congress to intervene.
After Commerce, Tauzin's bill must travel to the House
Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the SHVA -- a copyright measure that was
first enacted in 1988.
House sources said last week that key members of the
Judiciary Committee did not support Tauzin's bill, adding that a stay of the court
order would only postpone the inevitable, and that Congress should work on a bill that
opens local TV markets to direct-broadcast satellite companies.